How Long Should Kids Stay in Foster Care?

The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption has done more to get kids in care adopted than just about anyone else - their facebook page and websites have done a lot to draw attention to the needs of kids for families.  The biggest new face of foster adoption comes from an adoptive family that put up an image that has their adorable little girl holding up a sign saying "I was in Foster Care for 751 Days But Today I got Adopted!"  The image has been liked almost a million times, and the site's FB page crashed because it was viewed so often.  11,000 people requested information on foster care adoption, which is wonderful.    Rebecca at the fabulous blog "Fosterhood in NYC" has started a hashtag about kids lingering in care for her daughter Sandy, who at the time she posted this had been 463 days in care.

A friend pointed this out to me, observing that our Z. has been in care even longer than Sandy, which is true - by the time his adoption is finalized sometime this spring, he'll have been in care at least 600 days.  But my reaction to the ad was more than a little ambivalent, because of two factors.  On the one hand, I think it is good thing to showcase how long kids can linger, and how much that tenure can be dragged out.  Our own experience with Z. was one that was really fortunate - we had a great and very efficient caseworker (and miraculously, the same caseworker for the majority of his life in care - although he changed workers a couple of times early on) who filed everything right away, there were minimal court delays, and as I've written previously, Z's mother agreed to a surrender.  600 days is a very fast foster care adoption, and about 90 of that will probably be administrative paperwork for adoption.  In one sense, the fact that that's pretty quick is more than a little troubling, given that he's only going to be 609 days old when he hits 600 days.  That is literally his whole life.

I have friends whose children lingered much, much longer in care.  Parents whose children have been in care for many THOUSANDS of days.  Even "normal" cases often drag out for 3 years in my state, over a thousand days, and that is far, far too long.  I know people whose adoptive cases were continued for many months or even years for totally administrative reasons.  A change of case worker, judge or attorney can drag things out far beyond reason.  I have absolute sympathy with the family that put up their daughter's picture this way, and absolute sympathy with the parents of children who have been in care much, much, much longer who are furious at the injustice of a system that allows a child to spend forever in care.  As a friend of mine who is a supervisor of an agency that provides foster care in the Midwest observed, we should imagine the case if instead of an adorable little 3ish year old girl, this was a more typical kid in care - as she put it "a nine year old Black boy who has been in care for 5 years and I still can't find a f-ing adoptive placement for him."

I have seen families struggling hugely with endless cases.  And the incredible trauma that lack of permanency causes for kids can be a nightmare.  I have friends who had a child placed with them who wanted very much to be their son - but the case dragged on and on and now in his teens, old enough to have to make the decision affirmatively to be adopted, he's been told that if he just hangs on in care for a while he can go back and move in with his birth mother and take care of her - and so now adoption isn't in his plan, an incredible loss for both his future and the loving family that has had him for years.  Foster care means visitation that can be traumatic and stressful, never being able to plan your life, often birth parents telling kids one thing while foster families say another - and that is IF the kids are placed in a concurrent planning family from the get-go.  Often they aren't.  Often by the time they are stabilized they have lived in many homes, often of varying quality.  Some foster homes quite honestly suck.

Despite legislative attempts to make cases move faster and gets into stable adoptive homes, the time in care for kids has only declined so much - in my state kids still AVERAGE around 3 years.  So let's start with understanding that  the days-in-care is a genuine problem - kids lingering in foster care, being shuffled around to multiple homes should not happen, but does.  But I still have trouble with the idea that this image is a good ad for foster adoption, and there are two reasons for that.

The first is this - that this in no way distinguishes between a child floating around in foster care in homes of varying quality, and pre-adoptive foster care.  Yes, it will have taken 600ish days for Z. to get adopted, but because I live in a concurrent planning state, where as much as possible children are placed from their first time in care in pre-adoptive homes, and in this case the system worked, Z. spent all those 600 days in the same stable pre-adoptive home that will be his stable adoptive home for the next many thousands of days until he grows up.

Indeed, some of Gina's time in care was also spent in a stable, loving pre-adoptive home - in this account, "months" - while it doesn't specify, generally there is a legal 6 month minimum in a home before adoptions can be finalized, in the interest of ensuring that it is a good match for everyone.   So let's guess that 180 of Gina's days were spent in the same home she'll grow up in - and while being in foster care has its hassles for the family, with any luck those affect the adults more than the kids.  So let's take -180 days (with the caveat that I'm only guessing from norms here, I know nothing about the specifics of their situation) off that timeline that Gina spent in care, where she was not suffering in care, but with her family who just hadn't had the party yet.

In fact, IMHO that six month timeline is a really good thing, because far worse for children than foster care is disrupted adoptions, when someone decides they cannot parent a child they have already committed to.  This does happen, as we all learned years ago from the famous "put your adopted Russian child on a plane by himself because you don't want to deal with his issues" case.  Well, it happens more frequently than you think, and the outcomes are terrible.  I have a friend adopting a child from a disruption, and the incredible trauma to the kid of being rejected by a supposedly-forever family is far worse than moving around in foster care. As the Reuters story found, other kids are moved around in unsavory ways.   Those six months are necessary for people to see if they can really be a family together, and see what kinds of issues and behaviors they may be dealing with.

That adorable child holding the sign's picture doesn't distinguish those 180 days to people who aren't familiar with the system - the implication of the story is "there are lots of cute kids like me who are suffering in the terrible, cruel limbo of foster care" - which is sort of true, but also sort of isn't.  Because at least where I live (and states and even regions vary a LOT) most of the kids like Gina spend most of their time in care in the homes that will eventually adopt them if they don't go back to their parents.

One of the things I don't like about this as an ad for foster adoption is that by implication reinforces stereotypes about foster parents - implying that foster homes are bad (and some are) and adoptive families are good (and some are)- period.  In fact, many, many foster homes ARE the adoptive homes their kids will grow up in.  Most foster homes I know are pretty good, but some aren't.  Most adoptive homes are pretty good, but some aren't.  The dichotomy is problematic - it sets up adoption in opposition to foster care, when in fact, they are interconnected in deep ways, and the picture implies that you can have one in a system, but not the other.  That's just not true.

While it is possible that Gina was legally free for adoption when she came to her new family, most kids in care aren't, and kids her age usually are not.   So in my area you have to be a FOSTER parent in order to adopt for the most part, unless you are looking adopt children with severe disabilities, major behavioral issues, or teenagers.  Most legally free kids fall in one of the three previous categories, and in every there are an abundance of legally free kids who are much older and less cute in some ways (I think teenagers are awesome, actually, but most people don't fantasize about parenting older kids the way they do about babies and toddlers) or have bigger issues (but may be just as rewarding to parent)   And may I just say "I'd love to introduce you to some people" if any of these things is part of your life plan, because lordy, do those kids need homes, and they can be an amazing gift to a family!

As we all know in reality, foster homes can be amazing and wonderful, even if they aren't adoptive homes (consider my friend Kathy Harrison, author of the terrific books _Another Place at the Table_ and _One Small Boat_ who has nurtured almost 200 foster kids into mostly stable, safe places).  Some adoptive homes are imperfect at best, just like some foster homes.  The implied re-demonization of foster parents and foster care here in this image isn't helping anyone.

Concurrent planning, where kids stay in the homes they will be adopted in if they don't go home, is not the norm everywhere, and it isn't perfect even in states the do emphasize concurrent planning.  But if we are going to put up hashtags that only focus on days-in-care and imply that all days in care are bad for kids, we need to ask "how bad."

It certainly stank for us some of the time, but I think Z. wasn't suffering too much - but then, he was a baby.  What about older kids, who know they are in limbo?  Well, think about it.  Imagine you are picked up tomorrow from your home.  A person comes to your home and says "This isn't safe for you, you are going to a new family.  You have five minutes to pack your things in a garbage bag, and you are going to a new home with a new romantic partner and new children who will love you very much."  Ok, how long does it take for you to be ready to marry this new partner that has been picked for you?  Because this is EXACTLY what it is like to be an older kid in care (in fact, there's a famous foster care training exercise that involves visualizing exactly this).

It is true that it can be awfully tough on older kids to deal with uncertainty and instability - it is also true that foster kids are placed in new homes that they don't get to pick and that a loving adoptive home is not something they are ready for immediately, anymore than you would be ready to get married the first day you were moved into your new home with your new assigned spouse and kids.  It might well be possible for the process to move much faster than it does, but not infinitely faster - kids need time to process, to grieve, to come to terms, to get to know their new families, to love them, to be ready.    Would it take you at least a year or so to be ready to marry?

But there's another, more important issue underlying this, and that's this - the Adoption and Safe Families Act mandates that for the first YEAR of a child's life in foster care, the goal MUST BE reunification, and that termination proceedings cannot begin until a child has spent 15 months in care.  So let's assume a best case scenario like Z's, in which an engaged, right on the ball caseworker has a pretty clear cut situation with a birth parent who isn't getting it together.  For 365 days, the caseworker MUST focus on helping the family reunify - that means providing the parent(s) with services, visitation, psychological help.  They need to provide drug treatment, anger management, help the parents get housing, parenting classes and whatever other supports they would need to parent successfully.  This is mandated by law, and it isn't optional.  There are only a few exceptions, and most kids don't fit under them.

Then at 15 months, which is 456 days, the caseworker gets right at filing for termination of parental rights.  Now let us imagine a fairly relaxed and un-backlogged local family court system (in reality the family court system is the busiest in the nation and often has long, long delays) and imagine that a TPR trial is scheduled within 60 days, so at day 516.  And let's imagine that the parents generously surrender at day 500, so no trial is necessary, there can be no delays.  Then adoption paperwork processing is also sped up and can happen within 60 days - a super-high-speed situation that gets them adopted at...close to 600 days.

Now don't get me wrong, Gina's extra 200 days stink, but having worked with the system I can see how they might happen for a child like Gina - the extra delays when the birth parents are doing better in their treatment or parenting classes, and it looks like they might be able to go home.  The delays when overworked caseworkers get new cases and everything gets shunted aside.  Maybe a delay at the beginning when relatives were being investigated.  Some states and regions follow the timelines of ASFA much more strictly than others (NYC is famous for long delays), and a lot is left to the discretion of individual judges who can grant extensions or not as they see the case.  The same case before two different judges can have years difference.  Simple system inertia often slows things down a lot.

I'd love to believe there's a cure for system inertia, but I haven't seen it yet.  But, I imagine many of you will say, there could be a cure for the rest - why do we have to give the birth parents so long anyway?  Why does reunification have to be the goal?

And those are real questions, and they deserve good answers.  I think most of the people who foster feel like a lot of the time birth parents get too long, and it hurts the kids.  But consider this - how long does it take to conquer addiction completely?  How long to get clean and now that they are going to stay clean and sober and be able to provide a home?  How long for a mother who has been in a bad domestic violence situation, perhaps not speaking English, to get housing, a job and be sure that she's not going to let the abuser back in?  How long for a developmentally delayed parent to learn how to parent, for a child of the foster system himself to master the skills to care for his own child?  Who wants to throw families back into the deep end super fast, only to watch them fail and have the kids bounce in and out of care.  How long before you would feel safe sending a child you loved back?  The truth is, the situations that get kids removed are rarely as clear as a monstrous abusive parent who has nothing redeeming, and thus should never get them back.  The situations are complicated, and that's why the system is complicated.

Well, then, why do we send so many kids home at all?  Shouldn't we terminate rights much faster, with a one or two strikes and you are out system?  Ok, but what about the parents who CAN turn their lives around?  Shouldn't our presumption be that kids should live within their birth families?  And remember, the system isn't perfect, it makes mistakes.  All of us can think of some.  We know, for example, that removals vary a lot by the experience of CPS investigators - the least experienced remove at a much higher rate than the most experienced.  Do you want to be the Mom who gets their kids removed on someone's first independent day on the job?  What about race?  Black and Latino parents are more likely to have their children's injuries labelled abuse, more likely to be seen as negligent rather than victims of poverty, than white parents, even when the circumstances are just the same.  What are we willing to risk perpetuating?  What about services?  There can be long waits for mental health and drug treatment programs?  If we move faster, we risk the fact that parents who could be helped might not ever even have gotten that help.

To be absolutely honest, I'd like to see the system move faster than it does.  I think that at six months, the goal should change to concurrent planning for kids - that is, at 6 months they should have investigated all the family that might be able to take the kids, they should have a good picture of where things are going and provide a clear sense of how much progress the parents are making, and if it isn't much, they should be able to say "Ok, you get six more months of services, and if you don't make progress, we will terminate your rights then and there."  Termination should be mandated as BY 15 months including appeals, with ONE optional six month extension at 1 year if the parent is making clear and excellent progress but needs more time to transition the kids back home.  Every kid in care should be adopted by 18 months after their arrival in care, ie, by day 550, or if the optional extension is used (and it should not be used in more than 20% of cases where a clear likelihood of long-term reunification really needs the time), by 2 years or day 730.

Moreover, I'd like to see the in-home service time where the parents were given prevention services count towards their time frame - in some cases my kids have had YEARS of services and assistance, that functionally left them in hellacious, terrifying, violent situations for long, long times - only THEN to start the long journey through the foster care system.  When do we see kids holding up a sign saying "My judge let my parents abuse, starve and neglect me for 978 days before they brought me to my foster parents who fed me, cleaned my wounds, dressed me and loved me."

When I am empress,  if the children got prevention services for six months or more, that's the first six months, IMHO.   That's my dream system.  Those changes do  come with risks and consequences - that means that some parents who could have parented will lose their rights, that some kinds of injustice will probably be perpetuated in that system.  That the current model is meant to a be a balancing act is simply a reality - tip the system another way, and there will be losses.  In fact, I think a lot of us would settle simply for the system actually following its own rule and timelines consistently so that everyone knew what to expect, and a kid in New York City and one in Texas and one in California all had the same basic expectations.

Even my dream system has kids in care for 550-730 days.  And that's when there is a clear adoptive family from the get-go.  What's good about the Gina picture is that it is drawing attention to the need for foster adoptive families.  Because it is hard to find homes for kids. Right now I'm teaching a training class for new foster parents, and one of the caseworkers I teach with recently told me about two sisters who have been in a sub-adequate home with relatives who don't particularly want them  for months because they just can't find a pre-adoptive home  - the girls are six and eight.  The same supervisor from the midwest observed that they have a tough time finding homes for a very common situation - when an infant and a very young toddler need to be placed together, since most people don't want two babies at once.  Sibling groups like my group of four are very tough to find homes that will keep them together.  As I mentioned before, medically needy kids and teens are always desperately in need of homes.

Most people signing up to adopt, though, may not realize that in many of these cases, they are signing up to foster.  That's the first thing we teach in the foster parent training class - for the most part, the agencies are not adoption agencies.  There's a risk, and because of the legal mandate for reunification, that means that when that adorable baby is placed in your home, you are about to get a child with an entourage.  You will have to support reunification by taking the child to visits, helping make phone calls to their biological parents.  The child comes with birth parents, siblings, extended families, lawyers, caseworkers, etc...

Being a foster parent doesn't just mean sleepless nights and worries about the child being ill or not doing well in school like normal parenting.  It means worrying the kids might go home, or that they might not and that the grief will be more than they can handle.  It means letting caseworkers into your life and parenting practices.  It means interruptions when you'd rather not be interrupted - not just by the kids, but by the children's attorney who realized today that she has to come out and meet  the child by the end of the month and oh, yeah she can only come at 9 on Thursday.  It means phone calls in the middle of an afternoon or the night saying "hey, get out the size six pants and hope you've got enough diapers for a baby."  It means adrenaline rushes, and frustration and anger at birth parents "Why can't they just get it together" or grief and joy at the same time when they do.  It means hard conversations about "Why doesn't my Mommy want me?" "Why can't I go home, I don't care if he hurt me, I want my Daddy" and "Why doesn't anyone love me the way they are supposed to?"

It means doing a job that half the people in the world thinks makes you a monster and half of them think makes you a saint.  It means doing a job that isn't a job - that doesn't pay like a real job, doesn't come with benefits or social security, even if you have to quit your job to do it.  It runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, involves vomit, pee, poop, sleep deprivation, being kicked by a cranky toddler, cheerios all over the floor, and almost no respect from anyone you will deal with.  It involves exhausting work advocating for children and getting up the next day and doing it again and again.

It isn't easy, and it isn't for everyone, and it isn't running in on a white horse to "rescue" a child from foster care, or from the "evil" system, which for the most part doesn't have too many heroes, but lacks villains as well - it is just made up of an awful lot of people doing a hard job the best they can.  Everyone agrees the system takes too long and doesn't do enough for kids, and sometimes hurts them and loses them and does ill by them - everyone inside and everyone outside.  And maybe there are ways to make it better, and those should be put into place.  I promise, when I am made empress of the system, I'll put them in place, but even in my empire, the kids will be in care between 500 and 700 days, because, well, terminating parental rights is like the death penalty.  There's no parole.  There's no commuting the sentence.  And you shouldn't do it lightly, and no one wants to live in a society where it is done for the wrong reasons, too fast, too casually, to someone who doesn't deserve it.

What's great about the Gina picture is that Gina points out something imp0rtant - there are kids out there who need homes and love and a safe place to be, and there need to be more foster-adoptive homes, places for kids to land and stay and hopefully find permanency.  It is hard, hard work, but good work - hard like climbing a mountain or running a marathon, hard like building a farm out of dry earth and making it bloom, hard like taking something broken and slowly and lovingly fixing it until it is whole and good.   It is creative, it is art, it is work, it will push you to your limits and test your nature, bring out the worst and the best in you and your family.  It will shred your insides and then every time the children cast themselves into your arm or smile up at you, smooth them again and make them whole.

It is work that isn't for everyone but that thousands and thousands of people, maybe even a few of you reading this, could do and be the better and the richer for as a person and as a family.  If you are willing to take a certain kind of a risk and stretch yourself in a particular way, it can make you a father or a mother (again), it can make a family that will endure forever, or memories that will carry you to the end of your days with pride and joy and sorrow.  It is worth doing.  I believe that with every single fiber of my being.  In that sense, Gina, and all these children  and anything else that convinces people that they can take the risk and do this is a gift.  It just may not be a gift that gets everyone through the system much faster.




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Bless you! I loved reading this. I appreciate how much it takes to do right by the kids.

My son was in a wonderful foster home from 2 days old until he came to me at 9 months. I was officially foster care until we finalized his adoption at 16 months. (His birth mother's right were terminated sooner than usual because she had already had another child removed, and still had drug issues.) My son's former foster parents still see him weekly - they're his godparents.

By Sue VanHattum (not verified) on 13 Feb 2014 #permalink

I'm a mom through private domestic infant adoption. Your post, and blogs and articles I've read by other foster and foster/adopt parents, all paint very similar pictures. I become very angry when someone says, "If you can't afford adoption, then foster/adopt. It's free." You shouldn't choose foster/adoption because of the money. You should choose foster/adoption because you can support the goal of foster care: Reunion. If you can't be a foster parent - and there's no shame in that - then you shouldn't assume you can be a foster/adopt parent.

"Shouldn’t our presumption be that kids should live within their birth families? "
No. As someone who should have been removed from her biological parents, I say no. Biology isn't best. Being biologically related to someone doesn't make you the best parent for that person. Kids shouldn't have to suffer through situations because some adult doesn't think they're "extreme" enough to remove them from the biological parents.

My youngest brother is adopted, and although he was fostered for many thousands of days before his adoption it made no difference to him (or us) as they were all with us. He was placed with us as an emergency aged 2 (my parents were rushed through as foster carers- they weren't registered) and just never left.
I think it was realised fairly quickly that he wasn't going back into his birth family and he was being long-term fostered (calling my parents mum and dad) for as long as I can remember. Our social worker was brilliant and I'm sure that helped a lot.

Robyn, I think our *presumption* should be that children should live within their birth families because the consequence of presuming something else is potentially so great - if we assume that biology doesn't come with some basic rights, we can take kids away much more casually than we do. For example, in the 50s and 60s, we assumed that biology was less important than not being an unwed mother, and with some real negative consequences. I'm not saying biology is everything, but there needs to be some basic protections for the biological family, because otherwise those basic parental rights can be too easily interfered with.

Thank you for the excellent article in your blog!

In the United States, one factor which sometimes causes children to remain for protracted periods of time in government funded foster care programs involves payments conveyed by the federal government to the states administering foster care programs; states may actually obtain more funding by keeping more wards in state care for long periods of time rather than by terminating parental rights in appropriate cases and freeing the child for expedited adoption. The system itself is massively unfair to all of the parties involved: the children (obviously) who are subjected to indefinite "foster child" status, the tens of thousands of wanne be parents (some of them foster care providers) who hope to adopt and also to many birth parents who may mistakenly assume that their children will be returned soon.

The system in the USA would benefit greatly in my view by speeding up the decision making process to limit the time children may lawfully be retained as state wards. If "reunification" does not occur within six months barring a very exceptional circumstance, the youngsters should be placed in permanent adoptive homes!

Thanks for writing this article. I agree with everything you said about the very screwed up "parents' rights protection system" that masquerades as our US foster care system.

Our daughter came to us as a 2mo old foster child and we didn't finalize her adoption until she was 2 1/2. At 11mos she was returned to birth mom on an unsuccessful "trial home visit" (what they call reunification in our state). After a nasty few days in court, she came back to us 5 months later.

We have a good relationship with birth mom and we see her every few months. Our daughter knows her beginnings. When birth mom found herself pregnant again recently, she asked us to adopt that baby as well.

We are all carrying some trauma from those difficult days when our daughter was away from us, and we will never foster again -- but our daughter is lovely and amazing and doing well.

We were good foster parents, loved all those babies as our own, and fully supported reunification with birth family whenever possible. We never went into fostering to adopt. We just quickly realized how low the standards were for determining appropriate reunification situations and this realization, and dismay, made it impossible for us to continue participating in that broken system.